A free template for keeping track of your pre-tenure achievements
I'm a certified coach and associate professor of philosophy at the
University of San Francisco
The ultimate guide to service for pre-tenure faculty
7 minute read
A new faculty member once told me it takes her over 80 hours to grade 80, 3-page papers. That’s two 40-hour work weeks devoted to grading one assignment. This example may be extreme, but it’s not unique. Many early-career faculty spend far too much time reading and commenting on student writing.
Moreover, in my experience, early-career faculty who put this kind of time into grading also tend to spend hours and hours on other teaching activities, including lesson planning and meeting with students. The result is that they end up working over 60 hours per week, or have no time for research (or both!).
This kind of workload is not only completely unsustainable. If you’re devoting a disproportionate amount of your limited time to teaching, and you are at an institution where research productivity is the most important factor in tenure and promotion decisions, you’re basically working yourself out of a job. Can we all just agree that this is not the way to go?
Where I work, teaching comprises about 40 percent of my job (another 40 percent is for research and the remaining 20 percent is service). That means, in a 40-hour week, I should be spending about 16 hours on teaching. This includes instructional time, lesson planning, office hours, and (because my institution doesn’t allow teaching assistants to do qualitative grading) assessing student writing. I spend six hours per week in the classroom. That leaves 10 hours per week for everything else teaching related.
Suppose I spend 80 hours grading 80 papers, and aim to return the graded assignments to students within two weeks. This would mean spending 40 hours per week on grading alone: quadruple my 10 remaining hours of teaching time! Holding my other working hours fixed (6 hours in the classroom, plus additional time for lesson planning and office hours, 16 hours for research, and 8 for service), devoting 40 hours per week to grading would mean working 70-80 hours per week. Yikes! By contrast, if I devoted half of my remaining 10 teaching hours to grading, it would take me 16 weeks to grade 80 papers. That’s more than an entire semester!
The first scenario is bad for me: regularly working 10+ hours per day, seven days a week is a recipe for burnout. The second scenario is bad for my students, who need timely feedback to improve their thinking and writing skills.
But there is another option: spending less time on grading! Students get timely feedback. You get your time back. It’s a win win!
Here are six ways to spend less time on grading.
When I first started teaching, my assignment instructions were extremely thin. They typically included a short prompt question along with length and citation requirements. That’s it! The result was a lot of submissions that didn’t meet my expectations. I found myself writing comments explaining the same mistakes to almost every student (e.g., you need a thesis statement; this should be a persuasive paper not an expository one; you didn’t consider an objection to your thesis, etc.).
Now, I am very explicit about my expectations in the assignment instructions. I state exactly what I want students to do, and my standards of evaluation: what is the bare minimum and what is exemplary (e.g., by using a rubric).
In my lower-level classes, I sometimes devote an entire class period to discussing major writing assignments (e.g., midterm or final essays). I use this time to convey disciplinary writing norms so that everyone is on the same page before students begin writing, and give students the opportunity to ask questions that I’d normally answer via email or during office hours.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that every student will follow the instructions (it is almost guaranteed that some won’t), but when students understand what my expectations are, they are in a much better position to meet them; when students meet my expectations, I write fewer comments.
Something that contributes to faculty spending a disproportionate amount of their time on grading is the number of assignments that need grading in the first place. In my first couple of years as a faculty member, I would assign four or five short essays to each 40-student class per semester. That meant that I had to read, assess, and give feedback on 400 individual assignments. 400!!! What was I thinking ♀️
I have found that student writing improves dramatically through practice alone. For this reason, I have reduced the number of writing assignments that I grade each semester. Instead, students practice low-stakes writing weekly by submitting short assignments that are graded on a complete/incomplete basis. I can review these very quickly and provide minimal formative feedback as needed. If I notice a trend (e.g., almost everyone has misunderstood the same thing), I provide collective feedback during class time (see point number four, below).
When you write many comments on student writing, students struggle to distinguish the signal from the noise. Providing minimal feedback that is specific and strategic helps your students to identify the most important areas for improvement.
Resist the urge to start writing comments in the margins as soon as you start reading. Instead, read the assignment in its entirety before providing any feedback. Then, read the assignment a second time and focus your feedback on significant strengths and weaknesses, e.g., understanding, structure, argumentation.
I aim to write no more than one marginal comment per page of student writing (even better: no marginal comments!), and a longer, summative comment at the end of each assignment. Ideally, these are connected. If in my summative comment I note that the student needs to develop their argument in greater depth and detail, one or two marginal comments should address this weakness as well.
When you notice many students making the same mistakes, bring your feedback to the class rather than writing lengthy comments to each student. For example, if many students are failing to write clear and direct thesis statements, review how to write a thesis statement in class before students submit their next assignment. If you find that most of your students don’t understand a major concept or argument, devote some class time to reviewing it.
Another way of addressing common mistakes is by using a program like TextExpander to automate your feedback (obviously, this strategy won’t work if you’re giving comments by hand). This program allows you to create “snippets” that are attached to keyboard shortcuts. You can develop a bank of comments as snippets, which saves you from writing the same thing over and over again.
For example, whenever I notice that a paragraph has more than one main idea, I simply hit “zpara” and the following comment pops up automatically: “This paragraph has more than one main idea. If a paragraph has more than one main idea, consider eliminating sentences that relate to the second (or third etc.) idea, or split the paragraph into two or more paragraphs, each with only one main idea.”
I recently learned this strategy from my colleague Omar Miranda. Rather than giving written feedback to students, record yourself giving them audio feedback as you would during office hours. This is easy to do using a web-based learning management system like Canvas (again, this isn’t going to work if you’re giving comments the old fashioned way).
Providing audio comments forces you to give holistic feedback that focuses on major strengths and weaknesses (instead of writing many disconnected marginal comments). It is often easier to convey feedback verbally than in writing because you don’t have to spend time perfecting your wording or modeling good writing. Plus, you can convey a lot with your tone of voice.
Work will expand to fill whatever amount of time you give it (this is known as Parkinson’s Law). Set the amount of time you will spend grading an assignment in advance, and use these tips to stick to your timeframe. This will ensure that you have time to do other things, like working on that R & R or re-watching episodes of Ted Lasso.